Biden’s smoke war in Ukraine

President Biden is willing to say that the Russians are committing genocide in Ukraine, but he will not say his goal is to defeat Russia or Vladimir Putin. With the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s rule of thumb for the conflict “do not provoke Putin,” the Ukrainians’ valiant fight in a political twilight had to be between not-quite-lose and not-quite-win.

Russia is now exploiting this ambivalence, warning the United States in a formal protest note days ago that it should stop delivering advanced systems to Ukraine, otherwise there would be “unpredictable consequences.” In other words: Let’s win.

That has become unthinkable.

As the battle moves into its next phase – a more traditional tank and artillery war in the east and south of the nation – the Ukrainians are looking to win. One question remains: What do the western powers want? If not victory, then what?

An apocryphal phrase from the US war in Vietnam was: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” This gross strategic paradox is revealed again. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last weekend: “Mariupol no longer exists.” Ukraine is being systematically destroyed. To save them – or us?

Conventional wisdom holds that Russia’s costly reconstituted military failed badly in its early ground operations. This is true. Kyiv did not fall. What is less discussed is that Putin’s impressive fleet of cruise missiles is leveling much of Ukraine, despite reports from the Pentagon of a high failure rate. Global support for Ukraine is in large part a succession of images of buildings being blown to bits by rockets. Lemberg in the west was largely spared until Russian missiles hit the city on Monday. As long as Ukraine does not get enough modern air defense systems, Mr. Putin can do more of these almost at will.

Mr. Biden’s casual comment that Putin’s invasion was a genocide against Ukrainians sparked speculation about the president’s reason for invoking it. Did Mr. Biden merely mention a word he overheard at a national security meeting or signal a new direction in US policy?

One interpretation is that the random reference to genocide was intended to increase pressure on nations sitting on the sidelines. French President Emmanuel Macron fears an “escalation of words”. Don’t provoke Putin.

Still, Mr. Macron indirectly raised the right question: where exactly are we going in Ukraine? Mr. Biden’s rhetoric once again pushes US politics into a frustrating zone of obscurity. Is it possible that US policy is actually aimed at helping the Ukrainians drive the Russians out of their country – victory – or is the government working towards a Cold War containment of Russia, with a effectively dismembered Ukraine on the other side? a new Iron Curtain?

Diplomatic ambiguity has its uses, and it’s possible that the US goal, with its pledge to send $800 million worth of advanced military equipment to Ukraine, has in fact become helping Ukraine win without Mr Putin publicly rubbing defeat in the face.

What is still not clear is whether Mr. Biden and NATO recognize the unprecedented forces the war has unleashed beyond the Ukrainian theater.

The war in Ukraine is being described as the largest military event in Europe since World War II. A more relevant context is to understand that this is the first war ever fought within the mature world of social media.

Elon Musk’s war with Twitter is news, so to speak, as he has around 82 million followers whose impact is spilling over. Ukraine is both a shooting war and a global social media phenomenon. Social media allows millions—a crowd—to rally for any reason. For the past two months, this crowd has been fighting for Ukraine around the world.

Before February, it was an article of faith among potential US presidential candidates, particularly Republicans, that they were obligated to respect America’s desire to turn inward and away from the world. Suddenly, in a recent CBS poll, about 87% say stopping Russian aggression is in the US interest.

The political stakes for Ukraine’s exit have reached a point unmatched in any previous war in such a short space of time. Just a few weeks ago, “off-ramp” was the buzzword of the day; a kind of stand-down with Russia was at least worthy of discussion. No more.

The new keyword is credibility. Lose Ukraine after all, and US and NATO credibility will be damaged for years to come. Who would trust them? Taiwan? Not to mention the nations of the world sitting on the fence who don’t want to “provoke” Putin.

Western Europe’s unexpectedly rapid commitment to aid Ukraine in the first phase of the war triggered a cascade of global non-profit organizations supporting the Ukrainian refugees and fighters. They did not do this to settle for a frozen conflict. The animating force could not be clearer: liberty versus tyranny. If Mr. Putin wins now, global demoralization will be incalculable.

Ukraine willingly became a single nation’s proxy for World War III and the now apparent, inevitable confrontation with Russia’s messianic dictator. The moment has come in this war when Mr. Biden makes something clear with a statement from the President: “We are in this to win.”

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